SEOUL – A deadly shooting spree by a South Korean military serviceman has once again raised questions over the wisdom of deploying young, inexperienced and often unprepared conscripts along the world’s last Cold War frontier.
It is still unclear what caused the 22-year-old sergeant, identified only by his family name, Lim, to suddenly turn his gun on members of his own unit near the border with North Korea last Saturday, killing five and wounding seven.
Lim was in a stable condition Tuesday after an apparent suicide bid, doctors said, as details emerged of a final note he wrote regretting his actions. He was captured Monday after a 24-hour standoff with thousands of troops ended when he shot himself in the chest.
“He is in a stable condition and is fully conscious,” Kim Jin-yup, a doctor at Gangneung Asan Hospital told reporters. “He should recover soon,” he added.
Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said Lim had written a note before shooting himself.
“He apologized to his own family and the families of the victims, and expressed regret over what he did,” Kim told reporters. The note made no mention of Lim’s motives.
According to military officials, Lim had trouble adapting to military life, and psychological evaluations had recommended that his officers keep a special eye on him.
But that alone does not explain why he acted as he did, especially as he only had a few months remaining of the two years’ military service that is mandatory for every able-bodied South Korean male between the ages of 18 and 35.
And Lim’s is not an isolated case, with several other instances in the past decade of military servicemen posted in the border area turning their weapons on their fellow soldiers.
The country’s armed forces rely heavily on the military service system, with conscripts accounting for the lion’s share of its 690,000 active personnel.
Cha Myung-ho, a professor of psychiatric counseling at Pyeongtaek University who has years of experience working with military personnel, says the pressures facing the young servicemen can be daunting.
After what is often quite a cosseted upbringing, they are suddenly plunged into a world of harsh military discipline.
And military service in South Korea involves genuine combat duty, often along the border with North Korea, which former U.S. President Bill Clinton once described as the “scariest place on Earth.”
Because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas remain technically at war, and the 250-km-long (155-mile) border bristles with barbed wire fencing, guard posts and land mines.
“These young men are essentially confronting the enemy on the world’s last Cold War frontier, so it’s a very stressful situation,” Cha said.
For many, military service is an unwanted and deeply resented intrusion that interferes with studies or nascent careers in a hypercompetitive society.
The vast majority, however unwillingly, buckle down, knowing that refusal to serve means an automatic prison term.
Cha suggests the current generation feels the shock of military service far more acutely than previous ones, having grown up in a modern, affluent country and a society that is substantially more open and relaxed than the one their fathers knew. “Suddenly they are thrown into this harsh, challenging environment, and often thrown into it totally against their will,” Cha said.
Despite the threat of prison time, hundreds try and avoid the draft every year, often in quite extreme ways — including starving themselves to fail the medical.
A few years ago, there was even a mini-fad for large tattoos, which carry an association with organized crime in South Korea and can result in people being declared unsuitable for military service.